2013 - %3, January

Republicans Still Hellbent on Cutting Taxes on the Rich

| Tue Jan. 29, 2013 8:51 AM PST

Stymied at the national level, Republicans have spent the past couple of years focusing a lot of their energy at the state level. And they've had considerable success. Hundreds of abortion restrictions have been passed. Voter ID laws were enacted all over the country. Just recently half a dozen Republican-controlled states have started efforts to game the Electoral College in preparation for the 2016 election.

So what's next? Apparently state sales taxes. CBPP's Elizabeth McNichol reports:

In an alarming trend, governors in Louisiana, Nebraska, and North Carolina have proposed eliminating their state’s personal and corporate income taxes and raising the sales tax to offset the lost revenue....Proponents claim that eliminating income taxes and expanding the sales tax would make tax systems simpler, fairer, and more business-friendly, with no net revenue loss. In reality, they would tilt state taxes against middle- and lower-income households and likely undercut the state’s ability to maintain public services. Specifically they would:

  • Raise taxes on the middle class.
  • Require huge sales tax hikes.
  • Levy those new, higher rates on a much larger number of transactions.
  • Create an unsustainable spiral of rising rates and widening exemptions.
  • Fail to boost state economies.
  • Make state revenues much less stable.

There's more detail at the link. But the bottom line is pretty simple: This is a transparent effort to reduce taxes on the rich and increase taxes on the poor and the middle class. No matter how flowery their speech, Republicans remain hellbent on cutting taxes on the rich no matter what the consequences. Given how well the rich have done recently and how poorly the middle class is doing, this is nothing less than jaw dropping.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 29, 2013

Tue Jan. 29, 2013 8:21 AM PST

U.S. Marine Corps M1A1 Abrams tank provides suppressive fire against simulated insurgents during day 18 of the Integrated Training Exercise 13-1 at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base, Calif., Jan 22, 2013. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Stephany Richards.

A Fascinating Look at the Life of Ed Koch

| Tue Jan. 29, 2013 4:11 AM PST
Ed Koch, left, with President Jimmy Carter in 1978

Koch
Zeitgeist Films
95 minutes

This fiercely honest tribute to Ed Koch, the hard-nosed and exuberant figure who ruled New York City from 1978 to 1989, briskly strings together interviews with the late former mayor, grainy archival footage, harshly critical testimony from Koch's contemporaries, and a rollicking classic-rock soundtrack. The result is a documentary that intrigues and intoxicates like a David Mamet stage play.

The finest moments in the film, which premieres Friday in New York City, focus on Koch's rise to power in the late '70s, when the Big Apple was a powder-keg metropolis engulfed in financial disarray and a crime wave. Koch—a closeted homosexual and iconoclastic liberal—is depicted as the consummate political shark, siphoning off key constituencies during a gang-fight-like mayoral election in 1977. Neil Barsky, a former hedge fund manager and economic reporter for the Wall Street Journal, directs with a gritty cinematic zeal.

Ed Koch spent his final days as he always was: charmingly megalomaniacal. "This belongs to me…Thank you, God," Koch, 88, says as he reminisces about his tenure as chief of the Empire City—where he pissed off scores of feminists, Jews, African Americans, and hardened lefties alike. Overall, Koch is a riveting portrait of a towering and polarizing man.

It's also great fun, so watch it with plenty of buttered popcorn. Trailer here:

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Lead and Crime: Is Correlation Also Causation?

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 10:50 PM PST

A big chunk of the evidence linking gasoline lead emissions to violent crime rates is based on statistical analysis. This naturally leads to the criticism that correlation is not causation, so we don't really know if lead caused crime rates to go up and down. If you're curious to learn more about this, Rick Nevin has just posted a short paper titled "Lead and Crime: Why this correlation does mean causation." Here's a small excerpt that addresses just the statistical evidence:

The key statistical issue that needs to be addressed by the correlation-never-means-causation crowd is whether they honestly believe that:

  • The observed association between lead used in paint and USA murder rates from 1901 to 1960 with a time lag close to the peak age of homicide offending was a coincidence; 
  • The association between USA gasoline lead and violent crime from 1964-1998 with a similar time lag was another coincidence;
  • The “experimental evidence” from violent crime since 1998 (including a 45% drop in the juvenile violent crime arrest rate from 1998-2011) tracking earlier trends in lead exposure is a coincidence;  
  • Analysis of crime in nine nations shows the same consistent relationship between lead exposure and crime trends through 2002, with statistical best-fit lags that reflect the peak age of offending for each crime category, by coincidence;
  • This consistent relationship within every nation studied happens to explain otherwise bewildering changes over time in USA and Canada crime rates relative to Britain, France, and Australia, by coincidence;
  • Experimental evidence from international crime trends since 2002 tracking earlier trends in lead exposure in every nation is also a coincidence.

There's much more at the link, all based on a 9-part test proposed in 1965 by Austin Bradford-Hill for distinguishing mere correlation from true causation. Nevin examines a broad range of evidence, including statistical studies, longitudinal studies, medical studies, imaging studies, and more. It's worth a look if you're still skeptical about the lead-crime connection.

Am I the Only Person Left Who Hates Anti-Aliasing?

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 8:00 PM PST

I'm not trying to pick on the New Republic here, but I'm curious about something. They launched a redesigned website yesterday, and here's how the main text font renders on my PC:

Why does it look so bad? Because I'm running Windows with ClearType turned off. Does anyone else do this, or am I the only person left on the planet who finds ClearType intolerable for day-to-day use? If I'm the only one, then I understand why some magazines don't bother optimizing their body fonts for either mode (it's not just TNR). But if I'm not the only one, then why not use a font that works for everyone?

PREEMPTIVE TECH NOTE: Yes, my monitor is running at its native resolution. Yes, I know how to set up ClearType. Yes, I know that most people prefer the mushy look of anti-aliased type. But I don't, and never have. I'm just curious about whether I'm a lone holdout at this point. I wouldn't be surprised if I am. ClearType has been turned on by default in Windows for many years now, and my guess is that very few people these days realize it's something they could turn off even if they wanted to.

Hooray! Newegg Defeats a Patent Troll.

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 6:22 PM PST

From Newegg Chief Legal Officer Lee Cheng, on why they went to court over a patent on the "shopping cart" feature of their e-commerce site:

We basically took a look at this situation and said, "This is bullshit."

I'd say that this pithy comment is both legally and technically precise. And good for Newegg for fighting this out to the bitter end. Amazon and other e-retailers had already caved in to the patent troll who was extorting them over this. Also: good for the appellate judge who ruled that the patents in question were invalid on grounds of obviousness.

My only regret is that Newegg was forced to rely for its defense on the fact that CompuServe had some prior art for something called the "CompuServe Mall." That shouldn't have been necessary. This case should have been thrown out with extreme prejudice no matter who had done what before. There are just a limited number of ways of doing stuff like this, and a combination of product IDs, database entries, and cryptography hardly counts as an inspired invention.

This whole thing was ridiculous but, unfortunately, all too typical. It's a perfect example of why it's time to ditch software patents completely.

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Boy Scouts May Allow Gay Members…Sort Of

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 5:17 PM PST

The Boy Scouts of America announced today that it will consider allowing troops to decide whether to admit gay members, an unprecedented move that comes after months of online protests, lost funders, and scouts renouncing their memberships. But even if the organization rules next week to drop their long-standing ban on gay scoutmasters and scouts, chartered organizations would still be allowed to discriminate if they choose to. As BSA director of public relations Deron Smith explained in a statement, "The Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members, or parents."

Rich Ferraro, a spokesman for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), says that the announcement is "a big accomplishment," as it's "the first time the Boy Scouts have said it is publicly considering changing the ban." But lifting the ban without prohibiting troops from discriminating might not go far enough, he adds. "We're not going to rest until every gay young adult out there is able to safely participate."

Nonetheless, since the Boy Scouts reaffirmed its ban on gay members last summer, the organization has seen at least four big funders pull or postpone their funding. Thousands of scouts have spoken out against the policy, and more than 1.2 million Americans have signed petitions against it, according to Scouts for Equality.

The Boy Scouts was also losing local leaders because of the policy. Just last week, Pack 442 in Cloverly, Maryland, was pressured by its regional council to take down an anti-discrimination statement or risk losing its charter. Theresa Phillips, the pack's committee chair, told Mother Jones that after they were forced to take the statement down, she asked for her name to be removed from the charter. Her husband, a den leader, had renounced his Eagle Scout award months before. "My family loved participating in scouting, and I look forward to the day when we might once again be able to take part," Jennifer Tyrrell, an Ohio mom who was forced to stop leading her son's troop because she is gay, told GLAAD. Kate Brown, a former den leader in the Washington, DC, area, says that she took her two sons out of the program after she saw what happened to Tyrrell.

Advocates are optimistic that if the Boy Scouts' national leadership lifts the ban, troops like Brown's, Tyrrell's, and Phillips' will allow gay members and their families to openly participate. But just how many gay-friendly troops might emerge if the ban is rolled back? According to CNN, 70 percent of Scout troops are affiliated with a church or religious group, and the Catholic and Mormon churches are some of the Scouts' biggest backers. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that 52 percent of Americans are against having openly gay adults serve as Boy Scout leaders. The conservative Family Research Council is encouraging scouts to "stand strong," asserting that rolling back the anti-gay policy "would be devastating to an organization that has prided itself on the development of character in boys."

Correction: An earlier version of this post used the terms "troops" and "packs" interchangeably. Packs are only used to describe units of the Cub Scouts, BSA's program for boys ages 7 to 10.

Sex Ed Program Provokes Fight Over Planned Parenthood in North Dakota

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 2:53 PM PST

Last year, a pair of researchers at North Dakota State University won a federal grant to conduct and evaluate a sex education program for at-risk teenagers with Planned Parenthood. But now the school is backing out of the grant, and critics say that political pressure from anti-abortion lawmakers is to blame.

NDSU professors Brandy Randall and Molly Secor-Turner won the three-year, $1.2 million competitive grant from the US Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families. The goal of the program—which NDSU announced in a press release last September—was to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases in teens who are homeless, in foster care, or in the juvenile justice system. The school signed an agreement with Planned Parenthood in November to provide the services, which were expected to reach as many as 430 teens between the ages of 14 and 19. Planned Parenthood's office in Fargo would run the program, and the NDSU professors would evaluate its results. They had already started recruiting participants, and the program was slated to begin at the end of this month.

But in early January, anti-abortion activists in the state started complaining about the grant. "When I see something that says this is Planned Parenthoodthey’re not even a part of the state of North Dakota. They don't serve anyone in North Dakota, and they shouldn't be a part of North Dakota. They're not a part of how we do business in this state," said Rep. Bette Grande on a local radio show decrying the partnership: "It is an overt abortion industry that we don't want to be a part of." On Jan. 15, NDSU President Dean Bresciani said on a conservative talk radio show that the school had decided to block the funds, citing a "legal hang-up" that prevents the school from working with Planned Parenthood. 

As the local newspaper Forum of Fargo-Moorhead reports, NDSU now says that it is "freezing" the grant while it figures out if it violates a 1979 state law that bars state dollars, or federal dollars coming through the state, from being used "as family planning funds by any person or public or private agency which performs, refers, or encourages abortion." North Dakota Catholic Conference praised NDSU for making "the right decision," and it got glowing reviews in the anti-abortion outlet Life Site News.

The school's claims about legal concerns are specious, at best, say its critics. The 1979 law that the school cites deals with the actual provision of family planning care, like prescribing birth control or other medical services, which this grant is explicitly not designed to provide. It's an educational program. Moreover, Planned Parenthood doesn't even provide abortions or any medical services at all in North Dakota; its only office is in Fargo, and that office has advocacy, outreach, and education programs. Nor does the program have anything to do with what's being taught in public schools, as some anti-choice lawmakers have implied. It's outside of school, it's voluntary, and participating teenagers have to have the consent of their parent or guardian.

The decision to block the grant has also angered professors at NDSU, who see the move as politically-motivated interference with faculty research. Thomas Stone Carlson, president of the Faculty Senate, issued a public response to President Bresciani on Jan. 17:

We are aware that you have received significant pressure from legislators (Betty Grande and Jim Kasper in particular) who have political agendas that oppose the work of Planned Parenthood. The announcement of your decision to freeze this funding on a conservative talk show and the quick response of several conservative groups thanking legislators for this important victory against Planned Parenthood, makes it difficult to see your decision as anything other than bowing to political pressure.

"The university president lacks the courage and willingness to protect and defend academic integrity that he should have as university president," Sarah Stoesz, president of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, told Mother Jones. "[Bresciani] is caving to some ideologically motivated legislators because he is worried about state funding for the university."

"To turn away the grant on an ideological basis really just defies logic, particularly in North Dakota, where there is so little available to at-risk youth," she continued. "This is really a program that is a wonderful lifeline for kids that don't have other options."

Sen. Ron Johnson: We're Living in Atlas Shrugged

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 12:45 PM PST
Sen. Ron Johnson (right) poses in front of a statue of Atlas.

Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican best known for sparring with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at last week's Benghazi hearings, says the United States is currently living out the plot of the Ayn Rand novel Atlas Shrugged. In an interview with the Rand-inspired Atlas Society, Johnson said he "absolutely" sees parallels between the American economy today and the novel in which government regulations drive prominent businessmen to retreat into a secluded gulch in protest. 

As Johnson explains in the interview, his affinity for Rand has literally been set in stone—the former PACUR* CEO helped a friend install a statute of Atlas in Oshkosh, Wis. "There was a big old statue on the side of the road for sale, and it was Atlas," Johnson says. "It had the world, it was obviously the Atlas Shrugged symbol, and he was thinking about buying it and I said, absolutely, I'll pay for half of it." Then they set it up outside his friend's construction business. (Update: this business.)

Watch:

"It's a real concern," Johnson said, when asked if he saw examples of the private sector "shrugging"—that is, wilting under the pressure of government regulations. "As I talk to business owners that maybe started their businesses in the '70s and '80s, they tell me, with today's level of taxation and regulation, there's no way I can start my business today."

Johnson isn't the only Wisconsin Republican to lavish praise on Rand. Rep. Paul Ryan once called her "required reading" (also at a speech at the Atlas Society) before later backtracking.

*This post originally misstated the name of Johnson's company.

Saving the Ocean, One McBite at a Time?

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 11:27 AM PST
McDonald's Filet o' Fish, since 2007 sourced from MSC-certified fisheries, will soon be getting a new eco-package.

Last week, the Twitternets were abuzz with news that McDonald's is going to (as @HuffPostFood put it) "serve all sustainable seafood" at its 14,000 US stores. Actually, as Associated Press reports, the fast-food giant has been sourcing exclusively from fisheries certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) since 2007. What it announced this week was that the packaging on its Filet O' Fish sandwich—and that of a new product, Fish McBites—will soon be adorned with the Marine Stewardship Council’s blue ecolabel.

So strip away the hype, and what you've got here is a packaging change and a product launch. Way to get scads of free publicity, McD's marketing team!

So how significant is that McDonald's is using MSC-certified fish? When MSC re-certified the Alaskan pollock fishery in 2010, one of the group's officials declared it, "one of the best managed fisheries in the world"—an assessment that's often bandied about. But Monterey Bay Aquarium's highly respected Seafood Watch program rates the fishery a "good alternative," one level below its highest sustainability accolade, "Best Choice." "Alaska Pollock populations are moderately healthy, but their numbers have been declining," MBA reports. "Alaska Pollock are now at their lowest levels in over 20 years." MBQ also notes that that while the fishing fleets that operate there use trawling gear that's designed not to damage the seafloor, "these midwater nets contact the seafloor an estimated 44% of the time—resulting in severe damage to seafloor habitats of the Bering Sea." MBA also notes possible bycatch concerns involving Chinook salmon.

And the UK-based MSC-based has come under criticism for being overly industry-friendly in the past—such as in 2010, when it certified a Danish company's Antarctic krill harvesting, prompting a Greenpeace campaigner to declare that MSC had given an "unofficial nod to the basic idea that vacuuming up the tiny life forms forming the foundations of the oceanic ecosystem is an acceptable practice." Similar outrage erupted that same year when MSC certified British Columbia's troubled sockeye salmon fishery.

All of that aside, McDonald's could be doing a hell of a lot worse than stuffing its fryers with fish rated a "good alternative" by Monterey Bay Aquarium. And exposing its millions of customers to the MSC label might inspire some of them to learn more about the plight of the oceans. Let's just hope that the Alasksan pollock fishery is robust enough to handle the Fish McBite, should that product take off.